What is a Belief System?
Beginning in the mid-20th century, the previously philosophical concept of beliefs began receiving heightened amounts of scientific scrutiny. The idea of beliefs being deeply influential with regard to a person’s view of reality soon took root within the practice of psychology, particularly with the advent of cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT). In various eastern spiritual traditions, such as various forms of Buddhism and Taoism, this concept had long been embraced as key part of the practices involved in leading a mindful existence.
Today, beliefs are recognized in western psychology as being the most basic form of internalized representation of an idea. Much like a foundation for the growth of a developing individual’s perspective, they have a profound effect upon how an adult comes to view the reality around them. Two different people will see the same scene or event, based upon their respective beliefs, in two different ways.
Personal beliefs are frequently divided into core beliefs, which are based on active contemplation, and dispositional beliefs, which require no previous thought. Accepting the basic definition of a belief as an idea that is adhered to by an individual, regardless of empirical evidence, one example of a core belief would be “there is life on other worlds in the universe” being maintained by a researcher who has studied the Fermi Paradox. An example of an unrelated dispositional belief would be a random person’s response to a question related to basic aspects of reality, such as “do you believe that Russian cats all walk on their hind legs?”
An “occurrent belief” is the expression of a dispositional belief; a philosophical term, it is not commonly used in psychology, but is sometimes referenced. In philosophy, a dispositional belief is often regarded differently depending upon whether it is stored in a person’s memory or being actively recalled (“occurring”), thus allowing for debates on the nature of the reality of the dispositional belief. Mental health professionals will more commonly use the term “dispositional belief” to address this type of belief whether or not it is currently being expressed, reflecting the scientific preference for measurable data.
Where one or more dispositional beliefs support the growth of core beliefs in a developing individual, and the two groups of beliefs end up complementing each other, we have what is known in psychology as a belief system. More widely associated with religious traditions in all parts of the world, the concept of a belief system covers any interconnected series of beliefs which play an establishing role in how a person sees the world. Roman Catholicism, Hasidic Judaism, and Tibetan Buddhism are all belief systems, but a given individual may just as readily have a set of beliefs that are entirely their own, or are shared within a family, a local municipality, or people who share a more complicated network (such as belonging to a certain generation, and being of a certain gender, within a particular ethnic group, in a certain part of a particular country).
What Is a False Belief System?
A false belief system is a belief system which maintains a negative perspective on reality. It may be the result of experiences which occurred during adolescence, including early physical or sexual abuse. It may also represent the left-over remnants of a once-useful childhood belief, which no longer functions to the same effect during adulthood (such as “never talk to a stranger”).
Imagine a busy nighttime cityscape. There’s a lot of light; there are car headlights, street lamps, neon signs, illuminated billboards, and even individual pedestrians’ cellphones. There’s a lot of darkness, too: there are blind spots, side streets, and back alleys. These places tend to stand out, however: something inside of us warns us “not to go there alone.” Seeing things clearly for what they are, without any distracting alterations to our perspective, we can navigate this cityscape safely, arriving at our intended destination. Some beliefs play a role in this, such as the dispositional belief to avoid dark alleys, and the core belief that one should look both ways before crossing the street. These represent a healthy belief system.
Now, picture this same nighttime scene. This time, we’re navigating this cityscape while wearing prescription-strength sunglasses. Everything is that much darker; the sidewalk in front of us looks as bleak and foreboding as that dark alley up ahead. Other people fade and blur into the background; anyone not shining a light in our direction is lost to the general blur. We can’t see as far ahead as we could without the sunglasses, making everything seem that much further away. There seems to be a great expanse of darkness in between us, and every last lonely, isolated point of illumination.
Under such circumstances, the distinction between good and bad decisions is much less obvious. Other people seem less real, and much further away. Sources of illumination, instead of providing comfort and reassurance, only seem to emphasize the loneliness and isolation of our position.
Nothing about our surroundings is any different in the second scenario, as compared to the first; only the “filter” through which we see our environment has changed. This filter, the sunglasses, serves a vital purpose during the daytime, but at night it only gets in the way. It makes it harder for us to function normally.
Overcoming False Belief Systems
Professional therapists and counselors take a step-by-step approach to challenging false belief systems. They assist their clients in overcoming one limiting belief at a time, allowing their clients to move beyond deep-rooted notions which have often been with them for their entire lives. Common limiting beliefs involve the acceptance of others’ views on who we are, or how worthy we are; they center on the imposition of information from sources which could not possibly be privy to that information. Other people do not know us as we know ourselves, but individuals struggling with false beliefs allow their input to take precedence.
Recovery techniques based on intentional living and mindful self-awareness address false belief systems through methods like bridging the gap, a well-established therapy technique by which adults are assisted with developing natural coping abilities and other life skills. It has been used to treat individuals on the autistic spectrum for many years, but has more recently been applied to addiction recovery and a range of behavioral disorders.